Pacquiao & Armstrong Part III11/02/2011
By Thomas Hauser
Special to TopRank.com
In the not-too-distant future, Manny Pacquiao might well be a credible candidate for the presidency of the Philippines. The end of Henry Armstrong's ring career and his life after boxing offer a contrasting and cautionary tale. Part One and Part Two of Thomas Hauser's three-part series on Armstrong are available on this website. Part Three is below.
On January 17, 1941, Henry Armstrong and Fritzie Zivic faced each other in the ring for the second time. Fifteen weeks earlier, Zivic had captured the last of Armstrong's three championships. A standing-room-only crowd of 23,190 (the largest in the history of Madison Square Garden) witnessed their historic rematch. Five thousand more fans were turned away.
Zivic dominated from beginning to end, beating Armstrong as brutally as Armstrong had beaten Barney Ross.
James P. Dawson wrote, "Armstrong was pelted from all angles and with every blow known to boxing. Zivic handled him as he willed, spearing and cutting him at long range, battering the daylights out of him at close quarters. By the sixth round, Armstrong was uncertain of his footing as he shuffled forward. His eyes, swollen from the fourth on, were ripped open in the eighth. In the ninth and tenth, Armstrong was pounded almost beyond recognition."
After round ten, referee Arthur Donovan told the badly battered Armstrong that he would give him one more round.
"Armstrong," Dawson recounted, "responded to this warning with a flash of the fighting demon of old. Through the eleventh round, he pulled the crowd to its feet in as glorious a rally as this observer has seen in twenty-five years of attendance at these ring battles. The former champion hammered Zivic all over the ring. He pelted the titleholder with lefts and rights to the body, plied him with savage thrusts of the left and wicked right smashes to the head and face, blows with which he hoped to turn the tide of crushing defeat that was engulfing him. For two minutes, Armstrong went berserk. He was a fighting maniac, the Hammering Henry of old. It was glorious spectacle while it lasted. Then Zivic stepped to the attack. Through the last minute of the eleventh round, he hammered Armstrong mercilessly with short chopping stinging lefts and rights that ripped open old wounds and started a flow of blood."
Donovan stopped the fight in the twelfth round. Afterward, Dr. Alexander Schiff of the New York State Atletic Commission warned Armstrong that he risked going blind if he fought again.
After the second Zivic fight, Armstrong said that he was done with boxing. His championship days were gone and he had no desire to fight again. Then a predictable problem surfaced: money.
Armstrong had made over a million dollars in purses. But management had taken a generous share. He'd lost money on several business ventures, including a Chinese restaurant in Hollywood and the Henry Armstrong Melody Room in Harlem. He'd partied with a lot of women and thought of himself as "a rich playboy, flashing around town in a yellow convertible." He was a soft touch for handouts.
"Too many night clubs," he acknowledged in his autobiography. "Too many $1,000-dollar bills. Too many fine cars, fine clothes, fine parties. The money was rolling in. But the money was also rolling out."
On June 1, 1942 (sixteen months after being knocked out by Zivic), Armstrong returned to the ring in San Jose, California, against a club fighter named Johnny Taylor.
"I was there that night," promoter Don Chargin remembers. "I was a kid; I didn't know much then. But I was amazed. Armstrong was on a downward slide, but he still had an aura about him and he was still perpetual motion. All the way from his dressing room, up the aisle into the ring, he was throwing punches. While he was waiting to be introduced, he was throwing punches. Then the bell rang, and he kept throwing punches. He knocked Taylor out in the fourth round. Three months later, they fought again and Armstrong knocked him out in three rounds. Years later, I asked Taylor, 'You took such a beating the first time; why did you fight him again?' And Taylor told me, 'It was an honor being beaten by him.'"
Armstrong fought fourteen times in 1942, winning all but once. Ten victories in twelve fights during the first eight months of 1943 followed. "Every fighter tries a comeback," he said. "It's hard to quit the only job you know. There's always some money to be made, even on the other side of the hill."
But as Barney Ross noted from his own personal experience, "When you start to slide in this racket, nobody can stop it. There's only one way to go. Down."
On August 27, 1943, Armstrong fought Sugar Ray Robinson at Madison Square Garden. Robinson had a 44-and-1 record with 30 knockouts and was twenty-two years old. His boyhood idol had been Henry Armstrong. After a storied amateur career, Sugar Ray had made his professional debut with a second-round knockout of Joe Echevarria at Madison Square Garden on October 4, 1940; the same night that Armstrong lost his welterweight championship to Fritzie Zivic.
Robinson carried Armstrong for ten rounds, and everyone in the arena knew it.
Joseph Nichols wrote of the fight, "Ray Robinson enjoyed a brisk workout at the expense of veteran Henry Armstrong in the star bout of ten rounds at Madison Square Garden last night. Robinson enjoyed it, but nobody else in the Garden got any satisfaction from the spectacle, which was as tame as a gymnasium workout between father and son. Going along quite as he pleased, Robinson handled the one-time triple champion exactly as he was, a has-been whose best days were far behind him. Robinson, with the speed and agility that go with his 22 years, merely pecked away at his opponent, riddling him with a ceaseless spray of long lefts to the head. On infrequent occasions, the New Yorker essayed a right-hand punch to the head. Some of these blows landed, albeit with little force. Most of them missed, and by such wide margins that several critics were moved to observe that Ray was of no mind to punish the ex-champion. Each of the ten rounds was a repetition of the other nine."
"I'd hit him enough to get him in a little trouble," Robinson said years later. "But whenever I felt him sagging, I'd clinch and hold him up. I didn't want him to be embarrassed by a knockdown."
"I know it looked bad," Armstrong admitted to reporters after the fight.
But he kept fighting. Nineteen fights in 1944.
When his career was done, Armstrong would observe, "When you're champ, you have to keep going to stay on top. You have only a few years to make your money. After that, you're just another has-been. When you're through, you're through. When you're old, you don't get young again."
On January 14, 1945, Armstrong fought to a draw against Chester Slider in Oakland, California. They fought again on Valentines Day, and Slider won a ten-round decision. That was it. The ring career of boxing's perpetual motion machine had come to an end.
After Armstrong's boxing days were over, life came at him with the same merciless pounding that he'd dealt out to others in the ring. His management team had kept him fighting regularly, so their end of the purses would keep coming in. That had also limited his drinking, which was a problem at times; although there's a school of thought fighting as often as he did was one of the factors that drove him drink.
With no fights to train for, there were fewer and fewer days when Armstrong was sober. On a January morning in 1949, he woke up in the drunk tank at a police station in Los Angeles. He'd jumped the curb while driving drunk the night before and crashed his car into a lamppost.
Later that morning, the judge at his arraignment gave him a tongue-lashing, admonishing him that he was "letting a million boys down."
The following night, Armstrong went out and got drunk again. Then, driving home, he heard what he called the voice of God speaking to him. In that moment, he surrendered to Christ, put his life in God's hands, and vowed to never drink again. Eventually, he became an ordained minister in the Morning Star Baptist Church, where he was known as "God's ball of fire."
"I became friendly with Henry late in his life," Don Chargin recalls. "He'd given up drinking by then. He was very likable, very talkative, constantly quoting from the Bible. He talked a lot about how his drinking days and carousing days were behind him; that he hadn't been a very good husband or father when he was young, but that he was a much better person and much happier now that he'd found the Lord. I think he was sincere. He seemed to have peace of mind."
"I met him in the 1980s," Don Turner reminisces. "They brought him to Cincinnati to work with Aaron Pryor for a couple of days. Pryor fought like Armstrong used to fight, and his management team thought that maybe Pryor could learn something from him, plus it would be good publicity. It was the sort of thing where you go over to someone you admire and introduce yourself. We talked in the gym for about fifteen minutes, small talk. And it was wonderful. He was a very nice humble man."
Jerry Izenberg met Armstrong when the fighter testified before a New York State legislative committee that was considering legislation to ban boxing.
"He was talking about the good that boxing can do in a man's life," Izenberg reccounts. "And the lawyer for the committee was giving him a hard time. Armstrong was blind in one eye, and the lawyer asked him in a very condescending way, 'How did that happen, Mr. Armstrong?' Armstrong told him, 'I was a boxer. It happened as a result of boxing. I was a good boxer. I'm not ashamed of that.'"
But life was hard. In Armstrong's later years, he lived in poverty and suffered from cataracts, persistent pneumonia, malnutrition, and dementia. He died on October 23, 1988. The cause of death was listed as heart failure.
It's difficult to take a fighter out of one era and know with certainty how he would have performed in another. But the prevailing view is that Armstrong would have been a champion in any era.
He's remembered today primarily because he held the featherweight, lightweight, and welterweight titles simultaneously. Putting that accomplishent in a larger perspective, the most credible accounting of his fights lists him as having 149 wins (including 101 knockouts) against 21 losses and 10 draws. In the forty-six months prior to his losing the welterweight title to Fritzie Zivic, Armstrong's record was 59-1-1. During his reign as champion, he won twenty-one title fights. He was knocked out only twice in his career; in his first pro fight by Al Iovino and in the 131st by Zivic. There was a time when he could beat any fighter in the world from 126 to 147 pounds. And that was during the "golden age" of boxing, when there were a lot of very good fighters.
"Sugar Ray Robinson told me that Henry Armstrong was an alltime great," Don Elbaum recalls. "Rocky Marciano told me that Henry Armstrong was an alltime great. Willie Pep told me that Henry Armstrong was an alltime great. That tells me all I need to know."
"I never saw a better small man than Henry Armstrong, and I don't expect to," Jack Dempsey said late in life. "They don't make them like that anymore."
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com. His most recent book ("Winks and Daggers: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing") was published recently by the University of Arkansas Press and can be purchased at http://www.amazon.com.
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